Sri Lanka A 166 for 1 (Tharanga 102*) trail England Lions 461 (Woakes 137, Borthwick 99, Chopra 83, Randiv 5-107) by 295 runs
A-team tours can seem a strange sporting environment. The teams are ostensibly a national 2nd XI, but, as is the case for the sides playing in Colombo, proven men with years of first-class refinement are omitted for youthful cricketers with porous records and raw techniques.
Demoted international players may view unofficial Tests an easy hunting ground - a means of overcoming a crisis of confidence - but for others, it is the greatest test of their career to date. For selectors, coaches and players, individual gains overshadow the team cause, because no one in an A team wants to be there for long. There are no A-team rankings. No maces, or financial incentives.
Sri Lanka A's hopes of levelling the series diminished on Thursday, after England Lions had added a further 159 runs, but perhaps more importantly, for Upul Tharanga and Suraj Randiv, the second day brought their possible return to the tips of the Test team. On a surface not yet given to turn, Randiv collected four wickets either side of lunch, completing his fourth first-class five-wicket haul in six matches, before Tharanga fashioned a graceful, unbeaten 108 from 130 balls before stumps.
Tharanga has played 15 Tests and 171 ODIs, but for most of that international career his place in the top team has been contentious. On days like this, when he drives Liam Plunkett serenely, on the up, through extra cover, or takes the Simon Kerrigan from out of the wicketkeeper's gloves, you wonder how he managed to get himself dropped.
There is little authority in his shots, as there was with Chris Woakes and Scott Borthwick earlier in the day, nor the calculation Varun Chopra showcased on the opening day. There is only time and talent - he feels the ball, more than he watches it. At times it seems there is little correlation between the quality of the ball and its eventual destination - especially if it comes to a stop beyond the rope. Of batsmen who have made more than 15 runs, his strike rate of 75 was the highest b y a distance.
Early in his innings there were glimpses of the prods outside off stump and the creeping self-doubt that failed him in internationals, but he did not shelve his scoring strokes to get through the tough patch, as he has done in the past. Dimuth Karunaratne - one of the incumbent Test openers - was plumb in front to Graham Onions as he sought to whip him through the leg side. If Tharanga earns a place in Sri Lanka's squad to England in June, it is Karunaratne's place he will most likely threaten.
The Premadasa pitch has worn quickly in the past, but Randiv's wickets came on a surface that had not yet begun to assist the spinners - though three of his wickets were Nos. 8, 10 and 11. As Dilruwan Perera is currently Sri Lanka's second spinner, it is unlikely Randiv will have earned a place in the squad with this performance, but more heavy hauls in the remainder of the season may ensure he is the next in line. Though both Randiv and Tharanga have been tried and discarded at the top level, they are not yet 30.
The day began with an hour of patient batting from Woakes and Borthwick, as Woakes completed an eight first-class hundred. Dushmantha Chameera and Vishwa Fernando found zip off the surface early on, but just as he won through that test, Borthwick was afflicted by nerves as he neared his own hundred. Fernando sought to bounce him in the 90s, and Borthwick top-edged two fours - one of which flicked the keeper's outstretched gloves. The bowler's frustration then transferred to the batsman. Fernando bowled one full and straight, and Borthwick was trapped in front, one short of a fifth first-class ton.
"I tried my best to get out a few times that over," Borthwick said. "I don't like being in the 90s, so I was trying to get through them as quickly as possible. He bowled me a couple of short balls, so I thought I'd try and take him on. Then on 99, I missed a straight one, so I'm a bit gutted about that."
When he departed, Lions' sixth-wicket pair had put on 197, which may have gone a considerable way to making safe the match and the series. Woakes and Liam Plunkett added a further 72 for the seventh wicket, entrenching their position.
Borthwick said Sri Lankan batsmen had played his legspin well in the series, and as he and left-arm spinner Kerrigan were handled with ease by Tharanga in the final session, it appeared the Premadasa surface remained good for batting. If Sri Lanka A are to level the series, they must progress quickly on the third day, but even if they do not, two individual performances ensured a pleasing day two.